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Will Africa miss Qaddafi?

As the single-largest contributor to the budget of the African Union, a prime aid donor for poor African countries, and a dependable advocate for pan-African cooperation, Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi is a man whose impact reaches far beyond his country’s borders.

That impact is sometimes good, as when he funds hospital or road projects, or when his estimated 15 percent contribution of the AU’s budget allows the AU to send peacekeepers to Somalia, Darfur, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. And it can be bad, when he buys weapons for rebel groups to destabilize his neighbors like Sudan and Chad.

Small wonder, then, that African leaders are reacting to Qaddafi’s imminent overthrow this week with a certain ambivalence.

“A lot of people took his money while not liking him, and being uneasy about him,” says Richard Moncrieff, a senior research fellow at the South African Institute for International Affairs in Johannesburg.

“Qaddafi’s donations have drawn the vast majority of Africans toward a kind of support for him during the past few months, and African leaders will give lip-service for his support because [he advocates] pan-Africanism. But they also realize that he’s a destabilizing figure at a broader continental level. There is profound ambivalence about Qaddafi the man,” he says.

As Libyan rebels claim to have captured 90 percent of Libya’s capital Tripoli – including Qaddafi’s personal compound – the fall of Qaddafi’s government is all but certain. The impact of that change of government will be felt for weeks and months to come, as former friends and enemies lose either a source of financial support or cause of constant tension.

The greatest impact will be felt among the impoverished and fragile nations of the African Sahel region, the semi-arid countries that line the southern border of the Arabic-speaking countries of the North African Sahara.

“For now, the immediate impact of Qaddafi’s departure, on the financial and political side, will be felt in Chad and Sudan,” says Comfort Ero, director of the Nairobi office of the International Crisis Group. “Qaddafi’s support of the AU is one of the reasons why the AU has been reticent on the Libyan crisis, and cagey about how to resolve it.”

Stronger nations like Nigeria, Uganda, and South Africa may have qualms about the way in which NATO has changed the original humanitarian motivation of its United Nations-approved air campaign in Libya – from protection of Libyan civilians to outright regime change, Ms. Ero says. But those same nations have also had longstanding qualms about Qaddafi’s interference in the politics of its neighbors, and also his use of oil money to manipulate smaller and weaker African nations.

“Nigeria’s President Goodluck Jonathan was among the first African leaders to urge Qaddafi to go, and that is in part because of Qaddafi’s past statements relating to divisions between Muslims and Christians in Nigeria’s north,” Ero says. Qaddafi has steadily been losing credibility at the AU with South Africa, as well, particularly in 2009, when Qaddafi urged fellow African leaders to start calling him “king of kings.”

Yet for some African intellectuals, and particularly those close to the anticolonial struggles of the later part of the 20th century, Qaddafi retains credibility.

Qaddafi’s initial qualms about a hybrid African Union and UN peacekeeping force in the Sudanese region of Darfur, expressed in 2006, resounded strongly among other Africans who may also share Qaddafi’s skepticism about the supposed humanitarian motives of Western powers on the African continent.

“The presence of international forces in Darfur would be a new return to colonialism,” Qaddafi said in Tripoli in 2006, quoted by Associated Press. “Since when were the colonialist powers concerned about us? In the past, they treated us like animals and took us as slaves in their ships. … If there is a need for an army to occupy Darfur, the Sudanese army is better than international forces.”

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